Our bodies talk to us all the time. Migraines, tight muscles, irritable digestive system, elevated blood pressure, insomnia, panic attack, chronic pain.
Our bodies tell us exactly what we need to know, but do we listen? Do we hear the messages or do we choose to ignore what our bodies are telling us? And if we hear the messages, do we understand?
My own body has been talking to me a lot lately, specifically my calf muscle in my right leg. The muscle gives me lots of feedback when I walk and in yoga poses. I hear the muscle through sensation – tightness, contraction, a funny feeling. If I draw my awareness to the muscle and I listen closely, I can hear the fatigue. My calf muscle is saying, “too much” and “stop, I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me.” Most importantly, the muscle is saying, “I need some rest” and “please help me.”
My “body talk” is not a new thing. There have been significant sensations and increasingly problematic issues in my right hip and leg for almost three years. I have felt the sensations in different places at different times – inside my right hip, over the iliac crest, from the base of my sit bone down the outer edge of my right thigh, outside the greater trochanter, in my buttock, and now in my very chatty calf muscle. As I move deeper into my mind-body journey, my insights and understanding of what is going on inside my body deepen as well.
Nearly three years ago when my relationship ended, and by ended, I mean exploded, I felt the impact of the explosion in my right hip. Sometime within the first week or so after the ka-boom, that heart shattering, life altering moment, so powerful, forever changing the landscape of my life and my heart, I remember a feeling of tightness deep inside my right hip. At the time, I remember thinking the tightness must have been from all the crying and sobbing I was doing curled up in the fetal position. I sobbed with every muscle in my body and when I sobbed, my whole body contracted forward into itself. A few months after the ka-boom, I recall standing in my kitchen contemplating the persistent dull pain in my hip. I remember thinking that when the pain in my heart lessened, when the brick that was sitting on top of my heart began to lift, when the dark cloud of grief began to dissipate, then the pain in my hip would go away.
Many months after the ka-boom, the pressure on my heart began to lift and the tight feeling in my right hip lessened, but I started to feel sensations in other areas – a tender, achy feeling over my iliac crest while lying in bed, an occasional crankiness in my TFL when I sat for long periods of time, a tight feeling running from my sit bone down the outer edge of my right thigh while hiking, a tightness outside my greater trochanter, also felt when hiking. These sensations weren’t inhibiting me, my legs still felt strong, so I kept going, I kept doing.
Eventually sensation landed in my right buttock. I noticed the sensation in yoga. My gluteal muscles felt kind of cranky and tight. One of my yoga teachers introduced me to dukkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering. During our practice she invited us to scan our bodies and meditate on places where we experienced dukkha, or suffering. Where did we feel congestion or pain in our bodies? I identified with this word. I incorporated this word into my vocabulary and started joking around that I had dukkha trapped in my ass.
A little over a year ago, I developed a real pain in my ass, a pain I called “screaming ass pain.” Every time I took a step and pushed off with my right foot I felt pain in my buttock. In my mind’s eye, the pain was like a flashing red light. I turned to one of my yoga teachers, and very talented massage therapist, for treatment. She introduced me to my IT band, my TFL, and my hip adductors. She worked with me for a few months and whatever she did turned off the screaming ass pain. I no longer felt inhibited. I had a very active summer. I felt strong. I still noticed that my right buttock felt cranky in leg balancing poses, especially half moon pose, but there was no screaming, so I kept going and doing.
Last November, the sensation surfaced in my right calf, the inner gastroc to be exact. I first noticed the sensation, a tight feeling, while hiking. The sensation of tightness and soreness persisted in yoga classes. The muscle started hurting when I walked. I noticed and observed, but I didn’t listen. One day in yoga class, the talking got pretty loud, but I still didn’t listen. I kept doing. The next day my muscle hurt so much I could barely walk. I was certainly listening now and I really heard when my calf muscle shouted, when I felt a jolt in the muscle, a sudden contraction. I have since learned that when a muscle tightens or contracts, it is protecting itself.
The recent chattiness in my calf muscle has brought the bigger issues to the surface. The problem, the dukkha, is in my ass, right where my body was telling me the problem was when I had the screaming ass pain one year ago. My body was saying, “right here, the problem is right HERE, do you hear?” Reflecting back, I marvel at my body’s wisdom and ability to communicate. But sometimes it takes a while for it all to click for us. And sometimes we need the professional help of a physical therapist to help us unravel the mysteries of our bodies.
The gluteus medius on my right side is very weak. When I walk, my right hip and femur drift to the right and the force of my step is absorbed in my calf muscle. In standing yoga poses, my calf muscle and overeager TFL are doing the work that my gluteus medius should be doing and is now learning to do. (I know my TFL is overeager because it burns long after use.) These past weeks my energy has been focused on strengthening my gluteus medius to bring my right hip and leg back into alignment. Yoga enthusiasts will appreciate this: I just figured out how to do outer spiral, how to laterally rotate my femur bone! I have been going around singing the praises of the gluteal muscles, sharing my revelation. I am a butt evangelist! I am here to spread the good news across the land: every yogi should learn how to use their butt!
How did I develop a problem in my ass? It all started in my right hip after the ka-boom, with the tightness that lasted for months. I had an “ah-hah” moment early this year when I learned that the iliopsoas muscle, which runs from the base of the spine deep into the hip and connects to the leg, is a fight or flight muscle and that this muscle contracts when we perceive danger, are threatened, or are under attack. Much the same way an animal curls up when in danger or attacked, humans also contract to protect themselves. Our instinct is to protect our vital internal organs, our reproductive center, our core, our life force, the place from which life flows and is born.
The emotional trauma I endured was just that, an attack to my core self, to my life force. My body perceived danger and responded by contracting and protecting itself. However, my iliopsoas muscle stayed in a contracted, protective mode for too long and became depleted of energy and lost its ability to perform and stabilize my hip and leg, so other muscles started to step up and do the work that the iliopsoas could no longer do. And so a ripple effect occurred in my body and a series of muscle imbalances developed in my right hip and leg. When one muscle became tired, fatigued, and depleted, it stopped working efficiently (most notably my gluteus medius) and another muscle had to step up to do the job and another and another.
In order for a body to fully heal, it has to shake out and release trauma and the residual tension the body holds. Animals have this ability, but humans, during our process of evolution as an intellectual species, have lost our primitive ability to discharge and release trauma. I am keenly aware of the tension in my body and every day I drop deeper below the surface of my body, into the vastness of my “inner-verse” to explore the chronic tension, to unravel its mysteries, to uncover the secrets that will help me to shake out and release the trauma that is held my body.
My body, in its infinite wisdom, is shaking out and releasing the trauma on its own. My gluteus medius is so weak that when I finally find it and use it during my PT exercises (clam shells, side lying leg lifts, single leg squats), my leg literally shakes. I become so exhausted from my efforts that I cry. I cry because I feel a deep pain being released from my body. I cry for my body. I cry for my self.
How did I learn all (or much) of this? It’s amazing what we hear when we slow down, pause, and listen to our bodies talk.